We have covered a lot of the technical aspects of writing. All of those are important. You want your manuscript to be well-edited and as error-free as possible. You want a nice cover, because you never get a second chance to make a first impression. You need a nice cover blurb that will hook the reader and invite further exploration.
Problems in any of those areas can cause a reader to hate your book. Good storycraft is the one thing that can cause a reader to love your book in spite of problems in those other areas. You can actually see evidence of this in reviews. You do not see reviews that call the author’s sparse use of the semicolon and deft application of commas breathtaking. The cover might sell a book, but it is rarely the subject of a line in a review. A good book is nothing more than a good story well-told. That is storycraft.
I break storycraft into seven elements: Authenticity, Authority, Continuity, Character Growth, Foreshadowing, Pacing, and Resolution.
Authenticity is making the world and the characters you create seem real to the reader, allowing them to suspend disbelief and to live in that world for a moment or two. It is easy for you to clearly see the characters and settings, hear the voices and sense the drama and import of every moment of your story because you are the one who thought of it in the first place. You must take the pains to make sure your vision of that universe is transferred effectively to the page. Take the time and make the effort to describe, to render vivid those aspects that will make your book breathe, or make a reader stop breathing for a moment.
Description is important here, but remember that not all description is visual. Neither is it all sensory. For example, we all know people have speech tics, words they use in certain situations—a unique range in their vocabulary that tells us something more about them. Your goal should be for your readers to be able to tell which character is speaking without needing to see the dialogue tag. They will be able to do this if you create character “voices” unique to each character. That brings the reader more fully into the story.
Authority is the way in which you demonstrate your own expertise or mastery of a topic. If your reader sees your writing as authoritative, it will help them immerse themselves in the world you build. This is where it gets really tricky. You are concerned with the main story and in it, you know your character has a gun or a horse or a Spanish Galleon. You may see those things as incidental—mere scenery and props, but there are people who know virtually every freaking thing about those subjects. If you offhandedly mention those things (or others that may be out of your main depth of knowledge) make sure you do enough research to seem credible. You don’t want to lose readers because of this.
So, you don’t want your character whipping out his Colt Peacemaker during the American Civil War, repairing the mizzen mast on his sloop, or riding around on a horse on the American continent anytime before the 1500’s.
Continuity is your ability to tie all the events and plot lines of the story together. Account for your characters. Cover all the bases. Make sure you answered all the questions you meant to answer. If you don’t do that, the story falls apart for the reader. Have you ever had someone tell you a joke they heard, but they forgot part of it? They remember the joke was really funny. There was a guy and a duck and a bartender, and they forgot exactly how it goes, but the bartender says to the guy, “I was talking to the duck!” Then they laugh, but you don’t get the joke. Stuff got left out.
Sometimes authors will drop in a miracle, a new character, or some other device right at the end of a book to take care of loose ends. That’s lazy. Don’t do that. Don’t leave characters behind. Don’t leave mysteries unanswered or challenges unmet. Tie it all together.
Character Growth means that your characters are affected, changed, matured, scarred, whatever by the events that transpire in the book. It is less interesting to read about a character who is just the same at the beginning as at the end of an epic war, tragedy, adventure. In real life, things happen to people and people change as a result of those things. Maybe your bad guy gets more desperate and evil as the story progresses, maybe your protagonist has moments of self-doubt and recrimination. Those things help your characters jump off the page. They become accessible and real.
Foreshadowing is how an author leads the reader along, keeps them suspecting or hoping, but not fully knowing which direction the story will go. This is one of the ways to keep the reader invested in the characters and the story. Make sure you leave a few breadcrumbs along the way to keep your reader moving forward.
There are many ways to foreshadow major events. Obvious examples include dreams, visions, predictions, etc… but there are more subtle methods of doing it as well. A bit of dialogue, an artifact, a past experience remembered can all be dropped throughout the story and rendered into significance only at the climax.
Pacing is how quickly you choose to move the story along. Is it a nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat read from start to finish, or are there pleasant diversions along the way? Maybe an injection of humor? Make sure your pacing is such that you don’t lose readers who get tired of the detours. If you have a main character, keep the story largely on that character. If you have an ensemble cast, try to keep the rotation even so each character gets enough “face-time” with readers who may have a particular affinity for one.
Be aware that while an info dump is convenient, it may not be best suited to the pace you wish to set. Maybe you need a prologue and an epilogue, maybe you don’t. Maybe you want to spend six pages right now telling me about your character, but maybe it would be better to introduce us gradually. You have to decide how it works best.
Resolution is how you end it all. The one thing you probably don’t want is to have a reader hooked all the way to the end only to get there and feel really screwed over. That doesn’t mean you have to have a happy ending, but you have to have an ending, even in book two of a series of fifteen. This is the payoff for the reader. Make it worth their while and keep them coming back for more.
[This post is certified as 97% snark-free, just to prove I can do it.]
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